BORSCHT WITH PRIDE Barszcz, the Polish version of borscht, is a traditional Christmas dish served with dumplings.
Now is the season for beetroot. It reminds me of a great week I spent in Krakow, Poland, a few years ago. We were eating out and on the menu was Borscht – an Eastern European beetroot soup, known as barszcz in Poland. It has a sour-sweet flavour and a distinctive pink colour. For an Irish person, this very pinkness might be a bit off-putting – just get over it and dive in! Where this soup originated is a subject of heated debate, versions of it are found throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and the Polish do their own version proudly.
I have worked for years with Piotr Kubasic, a very talented chef from Poland. He trained under the late Angelo Forcini, the brilliant Italian chef who set up La Bella Vita restaurant in Westport at the turn of this century.
Reminiscing about that beautiful soup in Krakow, I recently asked Piotr (who comes from the south of the Greater Poland Province, on the border with Silesia) if he’d disclose his own family’s secret barszcz recipe.
He laughed. “There are hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of versions of barszcz,” said Piotr, comparing it to the Italian ‘minestrone’ soup, which simply means, ‘mixed’. Like the Italians, the Poles will use whatever vegetables they have to hand. Recipes are extremely diverse. Some cooks will chop their beetroot, place it in water, put it in a warm place and let it ferment for several days. Others will include dates.
In Peter’s home, the borscht starts with a ham hock immersed in water, brought to the boil then simmered for between two-and-a-half and three hours, depending on size. The broth will be the stock for the soup. The ham hock itself will be taken from the pot and oven roasted ’til crispy. Then it’s shredded and served with sourdough bread and a creamed horseradish condiment. Yum.
Several schools of thoughts exist on the final borscht product. Some serve up a rustic stew with all the ingredients intact. Others will blitz and serve with sour cream and dill on top.
In Piotr’s region, they go for a consommé style. When the vegetables are cooked they are removed and the soup strained and strained again till it is a thin, very clear, pink broth. Small, stuffed pasta dumplings (uszka) – filled with maybe mushroom – are cooked in the broth. The broth, with dumplings, is served in a glass, a portion of around 150ml.
What you need
> 4 medium beets (three diced into half-inch pieces, one grated)
> 1 small white onion chopped
> 4 garlic cloves crushed
> 2 medium potatoes diced
> 1 small carrot diced
> 1 celery stalk chopped
> 1 bay leaf
> 1 dollop butter and a splash of veg oil
> 2 whole allspice berries
> 1.5l stock (ham hock, beef, vegetable – up to you)
> 2 tbsp cider vinegar
> 1 tsp sugar
> ½ tsp ground black pepper sea salt to season
> Sour cream and chopped dill
What you do
Sauté the onion in the butter and oil. Add the diced beetroot, celery, carrot, allspice berries and bay leaf, stir to coat with butter. Cook on a gentle heat for about ten minutes to soften the vegetables, add a bit of stock if the mix gets dry. Add the rest of the stock and the potatoes, bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Add the grated beet and crushed garlic and simmer for another ten minutes.
Finally, add the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Adjust seasoning to your liking and serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling (less is more) of chopped dill on the top!
> Red Cabot is interested in food, nature and small things. He sells his food at Westport Country Markets in St Anne’s Boxing Club, James’s Street car park, Westport, every Thursday, from 8am to 1pm.